Michigan State has played some great basketball this season, but there might not have a better two-game stretch than the one Tom Izzo’s crew just put together over the final two days of the Big Ten Tournament.
As the Spartans spent much of the season watching one key player after another recover from significant injuries, it eventually took its toll. Michigan State started out terrifically, but once the first Big Ten loss came to Michigan, the Spartans limped to the finish line and ended the regular season on a 5-7, up-and-down stretch.
But then came the conference tournament, and things suddenly clicked.
Playing under a coach that knows a thing or two about winning in March, the long-awaited “full-strength” edition of the 2014 Spartans showed up in a big way in Indy, putting together back-to-back dominant performances against Wisconsin and Michigan. Those two teams both ended up with two-seeds in the NCAA tournament. Neither walked out of Indy with a trophy. Michigan State did.
It’s those games against that competition that’s making many think Michigan State could be a Final Four team. Opposing coaches have been warning of the healthy Spartans all year, and the Badgers and Wolverines just took saw first hand what those warnings were all about.
All of a sudden, Michigan State seems to have it all. A solid draw, a healthy roster and a team playing dominant basketball. The Spartans cut down the nets Sunday in Indy. Should they keep the scissors handy?
"Imagine being able to be magically whisked away to Delaware. Hi. I'm in Delaware."
Wayne and Garth couldn't find much to say about the First State, but the Spartans won't want to take their second-round matchup too lightly. The Blue Hens won the Colonial Athletic Conference and ranked in the top 25 in the country in points per game, averaging just a hair under 80 each night.
That being said, Delaware is hardly the perennial power Izzo has established at Michigan State. This is the Blue Hens' first visit to the NCAA tournament since 1999. They played three tournament teams this season — Villanova, Ohio State and North Dakota State — losing all three games.
Survive and advance
If the Spartans can get past Delaware as expected, they could have won of the easier roads to the Final Four in the entire field. The East Region might be the bracket’s least difficult, and of course that’s a relative term. Potential opponents in later rounds include No. 5 Cincinnati, No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Iowa State. It’s no cakewalk, for sure, but compared to the rest of the tournament field, it could set up nicely.
One shining moment
The thing that makes this Michigan State team such an attractive Final Four pick is that there is a whole litany of big-time players that could power the Spartans past quality opponents. That all-around attack is what we saw in those two Big Ten Tournament games. Big man Adreian Payne has probably meant the most to Izzo and Co. this season, scoring from both inside and outside and hauling in rebounds. Gary Harris was a All-Big ten First Team selection. Keith Appling is a senior point guard getting his season back on track, Branden Dawson is a force inside and Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine are both capable of shooting the lights out. It's not one shining moment for the Spartans. It's half a dozen.
How far can they get?
There's a reason everyone is projecting a deep run for the Spartans. The health has been restored, and though it was just two games during one weekend, the Big Ten Tournament saw Michigan State firing on all cylinders. There are so many ways the Spartans can beat you, it figures that at least one will show up during any given tournament game. Michigan State has the experience against top-flight competition, memorably knocking off Kentucky in the Champions Classic back in the fall. The idea of the Spartans as a title contender has been around all year, and though they waited until the final weekend before the tournament to prove it, prove it they did.